By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 25, 2006
HOUSTON, Sept. 24 -- The ball rarely traveled even 10 yards through the air, but it almost always landed safely in the arms of a teammate and the yards and points kept piling up. The Washington Redskins' offense may have been a model of conservative efficiency Sunday, but the team overpowered the Houston Texans, 31-15, beneath the closed roof at Reliant Stadium for its first victory of the season.
They beat the Texans (0-3) with an array of screens, quick slants and horizontal passes, accumulating yards after the catch and shredding a poor-tackling defense. It began with a shovel pass from Mark Brunell -- who set an NFL record with 22 straight completions -- to tailback Clinton Portis for 74 yards, keying the game-tying touchdown in the first quarter. When Portis, stalled by shoulder problems for six weeks, took a draw play 30 yards for a touchdown as the first half expired, the 21-7 lead was insurmountable.
The Redskins' defense was solid against an inferior opponent -- despite yielding another huge play -- and gained confidence with a game against Jacksonville next week. The running game was reborn (41 carries for 234 yards with Ladell Betts carrying 16 times for a career-best 124 yards), and Al Saunders's offense finally clicked, with eight players catching passes, almost all of them from short range.
"We've got some players who have the ability to do some things with the ball in their hands, and we just had to find ways to get it to them," said Saunders, the associate head coach-offense, who calls the plays. "Last week, we didn't do a good job of getting the ball down the field, so we had to come back with a counter to that this week, and Mark was very efficient and the offensive line did a good job of protecting, but it all centered on getting the running game going."
Washington entered this game with just one offensive touchdown, and a total of 125 rushing yards from its running backs (3.7 yards per carry). The Redskins had yet to crack 270 yards in a game and were a woeful 6 for 27 on third downs.
Sunday, they accrued 495 yards, the most since Joe Gibbs returned to coach the team and the Redskins' most since Dec. 26, 1999. Their 41 carries equaled the team total from the first two games. Brunell went 24 for 27 with the first passing touchdown of the season (a 119.3 passer rating), and the team pierced Houston repeatedly on third down (9 for 13). Portis, back after partially dislocating his left shoulder in the preseason opener and sitting out Week 2, had 164 combined yards, scored two touchdowns, and averaged 5.4 yards per carry.
"It was fun having the opportunity to be back on the field," Portis said. "The energy was different. The excitement was different. The only time I really got nervous was when I looked up and saw Mark was 18 for 18, and I was praying they didn't call a play where they threw a pass to me."
Portis actually began Brunell's 22-completion streak on Washington's second drive of the game. Everything before that play had symbolized Washington's season -- repeated penalties, the defense conceding a 53-yard bomb and the Redskins going three and out, with Portis stuffed on third and one. At that point, players began cursing at each other on the sideline, Portis said, particularly the beleaguered offensive linemen, but that unit rebounded on the following drive.
The shovel pass came on third and six from the 13, Brunell's first attempt of the game. His first incompletion came with 23 seconds left in the third quarter, besting Rich Gannon's NFL single-game mark of 21 straight passes ("That's an offensive team record," Brunell said, sharing the credit with his receivers and line.) Saunders knew that on third and long, Houston's defensive ends rush with abandon, and the delayed shovel pass was designed for Brunell to draw as many defenders across the line of scrimmage as possible.
The Redskins (1-2) lined up in a four-receiver set, pulling the secondary deep, and Portis raced to the 9. On the next play, Saunders stacked the line to the right, feigning action in that direction, and ran Betts left to tie the score at 7 seven minutes in. Misdirection carried the day.
"Go back and look at the film of [Saunders's offense in] Kansas City," center Casey Rabach said. "They've been doing that stuff forever. Anything to confuse the defense with all the shifting and moving."
Washington marched 74 yards to take the lead -- for good -- on its next drive. On third and four, Saunders put three players behind Brunell: Betts and wide receivers James Thrash and Antwaan Randle El; Betts and Thrash ran right when the ball was snapped, defenders followed, and Randle El faded left, then dashed 23 yards for his first touchdown with the team.
The Redskins overcame two holding penalties on tackle Jon Jansen on the final possession of the second quarter, and were merely trying to gain a few extra yards for a field goal attempt when Portis took a draw up the middle, untouched, for 30 yards, for a 21-7 halftime lead.
"Right now, we can't even keep a game close," Texans cornerback Dunta Robinson said. "It's embarrassing."
Portis capped a 14-play drive to open the second half with a one-yard run (he nearly fumbled for a touchback on the previous snap). The Texans' cut the lead to 31-15 late, then had a fumble recovery for a touchdown negated by a personal foul penalty. No matter, the Redskins secured a victory that ended a 10-game losing streak against AFC teams, one that had eluded them since the dawn of the preseason, when the mid-August sun was still baking the turf.
"It's been a long haul for us, six weeks without anything to cheer about," Gibbs said. "I'm really proud of our guys."